Stoa and NCFCA Lincoln Douglas Debate Resolution Breakdown with Noah McKay

‘Tis the season to panic over the slate of new debate resolutions! Just kidding. If you are looking for an opinion… Noah McKay has got one, or a few!😉 Check out his comprehensive opinions on this years voting Lincoln Douglas resolutions for both Stoa and NCFCA…

Stoa Breakdown…
If you are an LD debater in STOA this year, I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is, based on the new resolutions on offer, next season might well be a travesty. The good news is, it might not be. The even better news is that the outcome is partly up to you. Here are a few things to consider when casting your vote: 

Resolution 1: Corporations ought to prioritize the interests of stakeholders over the exclusive interests of shareholders.

This resolution is about as relevant to contemporary political discourse as it is possible to be. That alone is a strong reason to vote for it. Unfortunately, though, it is worded poorly, and even if it were reworded, it would still be likely to trigger very strong judge bias (partly because the topic is so relevant).

The wording of the resolution is lopsided because the prefix “exclusive” is used only with reference to shareholders’ interests, not stakeholders’ interests. This means that, while AFF is permitted to defend any and all interests of stakeholders, including interests they have in common with shareholders, NEG is only permitted to defend the interests of shareholders that cut against the interests of stakeholders. 

Consider an example: it is in the interest of both Apple’s stakeholders and Apple’s shareholders that iPhones perform as advertised and offer better functionality to their users than phones from competing brands. AFF can prioritize this interest, because it is an interest of stakeholders, but NEG cannot prioritize it, because, although it is an interest of shareholders, it is not exclusively an interest of shareholders. The only interests that belong exclusively to Apple’s shareholders are, by definition, ones that do not align with the interests of its stakeholders, for example the use of planned obsolescence and vendor lock-in to artificially drive sales. And I don’t know of any defender of shareholder capitalism who thinks that those practices are good for the economy.

The motivating idea (or one of the motivating ideas) behind shareholder capitalism is that it is good for companies to maximize their profits because high profit margins can usually only be achieved by serving the interests of consumers. And, as philosopher and economist Adam Smith famously argued in The Wealth of Nations, companies serve the interests of consumers even better by following market forces than they would if they ignored market forces and simply tried to predict consumers’ interests, as is sometimes required by stakeholder capitalism. As the resolution is presently worded, this defense – the defense – of shareholder capitalism is not available to NEG, because NEG must prioritize decisions that make things worse for consumers (or at least don’t make things any better). 

To make things worse, this resolution will elicit strong judge bias against AFF. Stakeholder capitalism has been in the news lately owing to its exploitation by powerful corporations as a weapon for radical political change. For example, “ESG” scores – essentially social credit scores that measure a company’s commitment to various left-wing agenda items – have been used to flagrantly bludgeon businesses into pushing progressive values in their corporate structures and/or media content. Requiring students today to defend stakeholder capitalism to conservative parents or community judges would be like requiring students in the 1980s to defend communist economic policy at the RNC. There is a forceful (and, frankly, justified) us-versus-them mentality surrounding the topic that probably can’t be surmounted.

I rate this resolution a 2.5/5. If worded slightly differently, it might be serviceable in a different league. But it is likely to breed immense frustration in STOA. And the way it is worded now, the most important and interesting arguments are unavailable to NEG.

Resolution 2: In resisting oppression, nonviolent disobedience ought to be preferred over violent resistance.

This resolution closely parallels the second candidate LD resolution from the NCFCA and raises similar (very interesting) philosophical questions. (See section 2 of my blog post on the NCFCA resolutions for several pros and cons that apply here.)

Unfortunately, the language of this resolution is appalling (and if you know me, you know I don’t use that word lightly). So far as I know, no one in human history has preferred violence to nonviolence. Even revolutionaries who are quick to resort to violence never resort to it first. Quite literally any revolutionary would prefer that their demands be met without resistance. Even Lenin and the Bolsheviks were happy to take Petrograd without firing a shot, and Hitler’s prefered geopolitical tactic was “annexation,” not war. And if Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Vladimir Lenin, and Adolf Hitler all agree on something, it is pretty much beyond dispute.

(For those of you who deny that Hitler’s expansionism was a response to oppression, note that the Treaty of Versailles was one of the most disproportionately penalizing settlements in all of history, and much of the territory Hitler reconquered had been stripped away from Germany under that treaty. So from the perspective of the German people, it was resistance to oppression, at least initially. Food for thought.)

The NCFCA’s version of this topic is more workable, since it requires only that violence be a just response to oppression, not the preferred response. Violence can be justified even if it is not preferred. For example, the Declaration of Independence contended that war against Great Britain was justified because the British government had rejected all attempts at peaceful resolution. But NEG cannot claim examples like this under this resolution. For the American founders certainly would have preferred not to fight a war.

I rate this resolution a 1/5. No competent AFF speaker will face serious competition from NEG.

Resolution 3: Criminal justice ought to prioritize rehabilitation over retribution, restitution or deterrence. 

This resolution is excellent. It parallels the 2016-2017 NCFCA LD resolution, which I debated my senior year. That topic produced most of the best LD rounds I have ever had or ever seen. The only problem I had with it at the time was that it limited NEG’s options to strictly retributive forms of punishment, rather than allowing NEG to uphold deterrence or restitution. (I tried – successfully – to get around this by defining restitution as a sub-species of retribution, but it would have been nice to be able to skip this step.) In other words, this option is, quite literally, the ideal version of my favorite resolution ever.

That said, there may still be drawbacks. For example, it turns out that restitutional criminal justice usually places a heavy emphasis on rehabilitation (indeed, rehabilitation is explicitly mentioned in almost every definition of restitutional justice), so it is tough to determine when, precisely, one is valuing rehabilitation over restitution or vice-versa. The other problem is that NEG might turn out to have a bit too much flexibility, so much that AFF won’t be able to effectively anticipate any arguments in the AC. Given that AFF’s rebuttal time is already relatively constrained, this will be challenging. But to be frank, challenges are not always drawbacks, and these two issues are just as likely to make things interesting as they are to make things difficult. 

This resolution raises a host of stimulating philosophical and policy questions, like: What is the nature of justice? Should we prioritize preventing crimes that have not yet occured, or correcting crimes that have already occured? Is punishing criminals enough, or must we also ensure that victims receive compensation? Does rehabilitation require us to be “soft” on crime? All of these questions are interesting and debatable. 

Conclusion

My conclusion is simple: vote for Resolution 3. It is philosophically interesting, politically relevant, and well-balanced. And anyway, there are no good alternatives: Resolution 1 is a bad option, at least in its present form, and Resolution 2 is a non-option.

NCFCA Breakdown…

The options for next year’s NCFCA Lincoln Douglas resolution are quite impressive. In my opinion, any of these would make for substantive and relevant debate rounds. But some are more likely to cause trouble than others. Here are a few considerations for and against each one:

Resolution 1: Governments have a moral obligation to recognize one or more of the following as human rights: healthcare, housing, and/or universal basic income.

The structure of this resolution is unusual: it explicitly allows the affirmative team to choose which of three things – healthcare, housing, or universal basic income – to defend. So debaters do not have to worry about being forced to argue that any of these in particular is a human right. If you think that universal basic income, for example, clearly isn’t a human right, then you need not take this stance in the round. Given rampant (but not necessarily unjustified) judge bias against positive rights to government benefits, this flexibility is necessary to give AFF room to breathe.

This resolution raises a host of interesting, relevant philosophical questions. The first of these is: what is a human right? According to the most influential analysis of rights, offered by legal analyst Wesley Hohfeld, rights are entitlements, in the sense that having a right to X implies that others have a moral obligation either to give you X (a positive right) or not to interfere with your having X (a negative right). For example, to say that I have a (negative) right to life is to say that you have (and everyone else has) an obligation not to kill me. On this analysis, the resolution boils down to the claim that governments have a moral duty to provide citizens (or, given most definitions of “human rights,” everyone) with healthcare, housing, or income. NEG could challenge this at two levels, either by challenging the analysis of rights or by denying that healthcare, housing, or income meets the analysis. Both of those are supremely interesting and eminently debatable questions.

A brief note about the scope of this resolution: AFF does not have to argue that providing free healthcare, housing, or income is good economic policy. In fact, AFF does not even have to argue that providing free healthcare, housing, or income to people would, on the whole, result in better healthcare, housing, or income for the average person. The resolution is explicitly, exclusively a moral claim: whether or not single-payer healthcare systems are efficient is entirely irrelevant to whether healthcare is a human right. Very often, recognizing human rights is terribly inefficient (hence the historical tendency of slaveholders and autocrats not to recognize them). So there is no need for LD rounds under this resolution to collapse into policy debates. If they do, both debaters are missing the point.

I rate this resolution a 3.5/5. It is flexible, interesting, and very carefully worded. The major downside is that there will likely be strong judge bias against AFF, strong enough to hurt the viability of even the best AFF cases.

Resolution 2: Physical violence is a just response to political oppression.

This resolution is well-worded. Given the outrageous semantic broadening of the word “violence” over the past decade, the prefix “physical” is a helpful guard against AFF cases that focus exclusively on political speech or other activities that are now classified by many as violence. (These cases likely wouldn’t get far anyway, given the priors of most judges in the league, but it is better for everyone if they are ruled out from square one.) On the other hand, the meaning of the word “oppression” has been even more radically expanded recently, to the point where, according at least a substantial minority of scholars, simply being in the racial or sexual minority at a given time constitutes being politically oppressed. So there is a risk here that NEG could swamp AFF’s applications by defining virtually all political activity as oppression (and citing dozens of authorities to corroborate this reading). That likely won’t fly with most judges. But it could still be quite a headache. (To be fair, though, alternative wording wouldn’t solve this. It’s an inevitable ambiguity in the topic.)

On the bright side, this resolution strikes a near-perfect balance between AFF and NEG judge bias. It brings to mind both the American Revolution and the race riots that took place over the summer of 2020. There are an enormous number of historical examples available to both sides, and judges will find a roughly equal proportion of these persuasive regardless of their political priors.

The most salient question under this resolution is: what makes an action (or activity, or policy) just? This is arguably the most important question in political philosophy and has been almost totally neglected by NCFCA resolutions for a decade. Is justice defined by social convention or contract (the Hobbesian view), or is it independent of these (the Lockean view)? If it is independent, what does it require? That we do what is, on the whole, best for the community (the Platonic view)? That we uphold the rights of individuals (also the Lockean view)? That we arrange society to benefit the disadvantaged (the Ralwsian view, roughly)? Or is it some mixture of these? No debate round revolving around these questions could possibly be boring. 

I rate this resolution a 4.5/5. The only real disadvantage is the ambiguity in the term “oppression.” But this would only be a grave problem if a large fraction of NCFCA judges were neo-Marxists.

Resolution 3: The individual right to property ought to be valued above the economic interest of the community.

This resolution is also very well-worded. In particular, it is precisely worded – it distinguishes individual from communal property rights, which preempts, for instance, the loophole negative argument that communities also hold property and that sacrificing communal property is never in the community’s economic interest.

This is a classic role-of-government resolution. This might not be immediately obvious, since the resolution doesn’t specify a government actor. But governments are the only actors who can feasibly enact the resolution. Individuals can, of course, freely sacrifice their own property for communal economic interests, but this doesn’t amount to sacrificing their right to property. The only actors capable of sacrificing an individual’s right to property are thieves, vandals, and governments. (But I repeat myself… just kidding!) The most important questions under this resolution are: What is the right to individual property, and how far does it extend? Why are governments established in the first place? Is it in order to protect individual rights (or, even better for AFF and more purely Lockean, to protect individual property rights)? Or is it in order to promote the general welfare? Are property rights valuable in themselves, or only as a means to promote economic growth? There are opportunities for strong empirical and philosophical arguments on both sides here.

There will likely be a substantial degree of judge bias against NEG, especially in the afterglow of Washington’s recent and deeply unpopular multi-trillion-dollar social spending spree. But I don’t think it will be enough to skew the topic irreparably. At the very least, bias will not be nearly as much of a problem under this resolution as under the first option above.

I rate this resolution a 4/5. Moderate judge bias is my only real concern.

Conclusion

Overall, this is an unusually strong slate of candidate resolutions. The probability that next season will go horribly wrong is comfortably close to zero. That said, there are reasons to worry about resolution 1. Given the strength of conservative judge biases against liberal spending policy (and especially against the superficial moral rhetoric that is often used to justify it), to declare that individuals have a “human right” to free government services will probably sound laughable and dangerous. It helps that AFF has an unusual degree of flexibility when it comes to framing the round, but it probably doesn’t help enough.

Resolutions 2 and 3 are two of the strongest candidates I have ever seen. I would be comfortable voting for either one. Resolution 2 pulls slightly ahead in my view, mostly because I think it is more relevant and more interesting and partly because it is not at all likely to be skewed by pervasive judge bias. But be encouraged that either of these resolutions would make for an outstanding competitive season.

Noah McKay is a Lasting Impact! Coach, he will be running an LD Club in the fall, along with Apologetics. Schedule a one on one coaching session with him today, or sign up for one of his fall clubs. Head to the SHOP now.